Gus Malzahn is excited, pretty much ecstatic, about his 2017 Auburn football team.
There are a lot of outstanding players and a great deal of quality depth. He likens this group to the 2013 team that made it to the national championship game, where they fell just barely to the FSU Seminoles in an exceptional game. Gus says, "this team is hungry. They have a chip on their shoulders from how last year ended and they have a lot they want to prove." I could see that happening in major ways, SEC title, the college football playoff. This team has the makeup. They'll have to get by the Alabama Crimson Tide at home, but everybody has to go through Alabama to win the SEC. That's the way it is in this conference. Gus knows that as well as anybody. Should be an epic Iron Bowl in Auburn, Saturday, November 25th.
The big news was the transfer of quarterback Jarrett Stidham, the former Baylor standout as a freshman at Waco. Stidham didn't disappoint in the spring game as he had a gigantic day and showed signs of becoming a championship quarterback. But there is competition. Sean White is back and he threw for over 1,300 yards and was having a solid season until a shoulder injury hampered him severely towards the latter half of the season. AU was doing very well reeling off 6 victories in a row in 2016 before injuries to key players took its toll.
But White is back and talented freshman Malik Willis provides Gus and first year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey with 3 very good players under center. It starts there. Offensive line is tremendously deep, led by All American candidate, right tackle Braden Smith. Braden is a tremendously tough, physical player, and, along with center Austin Golson, will be a leader up front on a deep, physical group. They will pave the way for the dynamic running back tandem of Kameron Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. Pettway ran for over 1,300 yards last year and he and Kerryon accounted for 2,300 rushing yards for the Tigers. Pettway is down to 238 pounds from around 250, Johnson is up to 218 pounds. They will form a formidable duo for the Tigers on the ground. Gus likes the way Kerryon can catch the ball out of the backfield and make plays. Kam is developing in that area as well. Third string running back could be Malik Miller, a talented runner from Madison Academy, where Kerryon played. Gus likes Malik a lot, but says there is a battle going on for the 3rd string running back spot.
At wide out, Nate Craig-Myers looked super in the spring. Craig-Myers accounted for 4 or 5 major explosive plays (over 30 yard catches-runs) for the Tigers in the spring game. He has arrived as a special, game changing player for the Tigers. Darius Slayton, Kyle Davis and quite a few others will be threats in the vertical game. Gus brought up John Franklin III and what a weapon he can be in the passing game and the return game. Gus calls him "the fastest guy I've seen in pads in a long time." Jalen Harris looks like the starting tight end at this point. Tight end will need to be developed in fall camp. Offense looks outstanding. Stidham appears to be the most talented QB, but White is ready to battle it out with him in August. Willis looks like a stellar quarterback who will very much be in Auburn's future plans.
The defense returns as the 7th best scoring defense in the country. Auburn only allowed 19 points per game last year. Kevin Steele, in his first year, had the Tigers playing exceptional defense. Gus calls linebackers Deshaun Davis and Tre' Williams, "the quarterbacks of the defense." He is really high on both players. He likes the depth there too. Up front, Marlon Davidson will be a handful for offensive linemen and is a potentially dominant defensive end helping fill the holes left by the departures of Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, who were both drafted by the NFL. Dontavious Russell is an underrated defensive tackle. He's excellent. Derrick Brown was a highly acclaimed 5 star 2 years ago and he's a 300 pounder who can be a major disrupter in the middle. A guy Gus and Steele are looking for to take the next step to becoming an elite football player is defensive end Byron Cowart. Cowart was a highly acclaimed 5 star 3 years ago with so much promise. If he can step his game up and become an elite player, that will also boost the front 7.
The secondary will be led by safety Tray Matthews and cornerback Carlton Davis, both excellent players. Stephen Roberts is another who will be a major impact player at safety. Javaris Davis is listed as the other starting corner, so that will be determined how that other corner spot develops opposite Carlton Davis.
The kicking game is led by the sensational Daniel Carlson, who I would say is the best kicker in college football. Carlson is amazingly accurate and can hit from major distance, 50-55 yarders for sure, probably deeper if necessary. He's quite a weapon. Punters are Carlson and Ian Shannon. Franklin III could very well be an explosive player as a punt returner, with Ryan Davis getting a shot too. Kerryon will be one of the kick returners. Craig-Myers could get involved in that too.
As talented as the Tigers are, once again they have a very difficult schedule. They go to Clemson in week 2 after opening up with Georgia Southern on Saturday, Sept. 2. A pretty pivotal game early in the season in Clemson's Death Valley, but Clemson's quarterback situation is not settled, so I see AU with an advantage there. But the Tigers can't sleep on the Georgia Southern Eagles and their triple option offense. Those offenses always gives defensive coordinators nightmares and causes problems for the defense. So AU will have to be ready to play on Sept. 2nd. Mercer is next Sept. 16th.
In the SEC, AU is @ Missouri on Sept. 23rd, home vs Ms, State, Sept.30th, home vs Ole Miss, Oct.7th, then have a tough stretch of road games, @ LSU, Oct. 14th, @ Arkansas, Oct. 21st, an open date, @ A&M, Nov. 4th. Then they come home for the South's oldest football rivalry and one of the most physical, toughest games of the year against the Georgia Bulldogs on Nov. 11th. That should be a classic. The Tigers host Mercer after that Nov. 18th, then the Crimson Tide comes into Jordan-Hare Nov. 25th, a Saturday.
The schedule is tough, but they all are in the SEC. The SEC will have superb quarterback play this year, so a good quarterback/offense will be critical. You have to play defense in the league too, and Auburn looks like they'll be able to do that along with running the football, two key areas to winning SEC games. If the Tigers can stay mostly healthy, and Stidham, if he's the starter, can play on an elite level, like he did in the spring, this will be an elite football team capable of challenging the Crimson Tide for the SEC West title and a chance to get into the college football playoff. I'm a buyer in the Auburn Tigers. Gus has a special group that can do some spectacular things. 10-11 victories is highly possible and a trip to Atlanta and beyond that is entirely attainable for this 2017 Auburn Tigers football team.